This is my last ever post here on Premier League football, and to mark the final day of the 2011-12 season I’m going to back the underdog in the different categories that still remain up for grabs tomorrow afternoon.
The qualification place or places for next season’s Champions League still to be decided have three teams left in the running. If there’s no positional changes in the table after the 38th game then Arsenal would qualify in third place while Tottenham would need Bayern Munich to win the Champions League at Chelsea’s expense in one week’s time to eventually claim their place via fourth spot. However Newcastle United can’t be ruled out of pipping either or both north London teams at the last.
The biggest focus will of course be on the title race. Manchester City in the driving seat go into their home game against QPR with an eight goal advantage over United, while their rivals must travel to Sunderland. And at the other end of the table it will be just as tense with QPR, currently a couple of points and nine goals better off than relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers who head to Stoke City needing three points and (most probably) for QPR to get nothing at the Etihad Stadium, to survive. Put more simply Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United fans will not be celebrating together tomorrow, though Bolton and City or United and QPR fans might be. The latter realise they can afford to lose over 90 minutes at what would be City’s party and still be in the mood to celebrate if Bolton should fail to win at the Britannia Stadium.
This is the point where I should apologise to any Newcastle United supporters for a claim I made on here back on March 4th. When you won the derby I said your home form would stand in the way of a top five finish, and yet with the help of Chelsea’s capitualation in the league in the final weeks of the season, top five is already secured. They’ve won 11 times at the Sports Direct Arena this season while Arsenal accumulated 12 home wins, although the Gunners have scored ten more goals and goal difference could yet prove to be the difference IF Newcastle were to win at Everton AND Arsenal could only manage a draw at West Brom, how ever unlikely both outcomes may seem. It would also present Tottenham with the opportunity of stealing third place, although that would still require Harry Redknapp’s team to take all three points at home to Fulham unless West Brom defeated Arsenal by at least a two goal margin AND Newcastle were unable to take all three points from Goodison Park - in which case a draw would still settle it in Tottenham’s favour.
It’s away from home that Newcastle and Arsenal have identical records going into their final games – having both won eight but lost seven. Alan Pardew has just been named the Premier League manager of the season. As the underdog for third place and hot on the heels of their 2-0 win at Chelsea, could they really cause an upset amongst the competition from London? Sorry, but once again I think not!
The FA Cup will reach it’s last four or five teams by the end of tonight, potentially setting up a Merseyside derby at Wembley next month. However, Sunderland stand in the way of Everton taking on Liverpool on semi-final weekend.
David Moyes’ team are away from home for the first time in this season’s competition. In comparison the Black Cats have been taken to one replay previously, which they won at Middlesbrough, and Martin O’Neill’s team have also beaten Arsenal at the Stadium of Light in the fifth round. So they go into this evening’s tie as favourites, following the 1-1 draw at Goodison Park. But if it’s level after another 90 minutes, then the Toffees could still be in with a good chance of reaching the next round.
Everton currently sit ninth in the Premier League table ahead of tonight’s derby at Anfield, unbeaten in their last seven league games. Any result for them against Liverpool tonight with the exception of a defeat would lift them further up the table. But rather strangely their form of late has seen them not only beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs but also keep a clean sheet against each of those sides, while they have drawn 1-1 with four teams currently in the bottom six.
Liverpool’s participation in the Carling Cup final meant that this game was postponed on the same weekend Chelsea won for the first time in five league games. Liverpool’s opponents at Wembley that day, Cardiff caused them more problems than Brighton - another team with an eye on promotion to the Premier League – did at Anfield in the last round of the FA Cup.
However, the Reds’ three consecutive league defeats has been much talked about this week, and while results haven’t been going Liverpool’s way of late, Arsenal have taken maximum points since they thrashed Blackburn 7-1 at the beginning of February. That included winning at Anfield ten days ago with a last minute goal, a result which effectively wrecked Liverpool’s own aspirations for a top four place come the end of the season.
Swansea City, promoted from the Championship last season despite only four away wins in the second half of that campaign, have only three points from eight Premier League away games - all were draws (at Wolves, Liverpool and Newcastle) - so can Everton beat one of the newly promoted teams at home, at the final attempt?
Since Everton created a three point gap between themselves and Wolves following their most recent victory at Goodison Park, the Toffees failed to win either of their two home games, which included a 1-0 defeat by Stoke City.
A third draw of their campaign against the Swans tonight would be proof they have been merely consistent without improvement since supporters’ group The Blue Union staged it’s rally and march before the game against Wolves on 19th November.
While some Everton supporters would obviously like to see immediate investment so that their club can aim to keep up with the current top six, the realistic position for now should be aiming to be top of the rest.
With a game in hand they are currently seven points behind eighth placed Stoke, which isn’t impossible ground to make up between now and May. However, speculation continues to link manager David Moyes with other clubs, most recently this week Athletico Madrid, who are in the last 32 of the Europa League. While 20-year-old England midfielder Jack Rodwell, who will make his 50th Premier League start as soon as he recovers from a hamstring injury, has become a transfer target for Chelsea.
Near the foot: After the first three games of the season Wolves were up at the top of the league but seven games later, following a 3-1 defeat at Manchester CIty, Mick McCarthy’s team found themselves down in their lowest league position of the season (17th), with only one additional point, courtesy of a very late comeback at home to Swansea City in their previous game. However, they go to Goodison Park tomorrow, on the back of their third win of the campaign, now with 11 points from the same number of games. Everton have also managed to accumulate an average of one point per game.
Mid-table: Also tomorrow, Stoke City host Queens Park Rangers – two teams with identical records (Won 3 Drawn 3 Lost 5). Before Stoke had tasted defeat at home for the first time this season, 3-1 against Newcastle United on the last day of October, only four goals had previously been scored in as many games at the Britannia Stadium, including clean sheets kept against both Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as a 1-1 draw against champions Manchester United. Despite only being a win off eighth place, both teams have woeful goal differences, largely down to Rangers’ 6-0 defeat at Fulham at the beginning of October, and Stoke’s 5-0 capitulation at Bolton last time out.
Near the top: Spurs take on Aston Villa at White Hart Lane on Monday night.
Five of the teams who started the weekend in the bottom half of the Premier League table lost yesterday. Four of them (QPR, Sunderland, Everton and Blackburn) lost by only one goal. The other five were all in action today.
I wrote here yesterday before the match between Newcastle United and Everton that rather a lot has been made of Everton’s shortage of firepower so far this season. Perhaps because of their league position, or just because they don’t always have an out-and-out goalscorer in their starting eleven. For only the fourth time in the league this season Louis Saha started for the Toffeemen, but the Frenchman was unable to add to his single goal so far.
But it’s at the other end where, after losing 2-1 at St James’ Park in a game where all the goals were scored before half-time, Everton manager David Moyes felt any faint opportunity of taking something away disappeared. “I think you make your own luck and we did not do that with our defending in the first half,” he said, following a Johnny Heitinga own goal and Ryan Taylor’s strike, which took the number of league goals Everton have conceded away from Goodison Park this season to eight (15 conceded home and away).
Meanwhile, Sunderland went to Old Trafford, where they lost by a solitary Wes Brown own goal yesterday, having previously only leaked four on the road. But West Brom’s record took a dent in the shape of three goals at Arsenal, and Swansea City up in tenth place kept a clean sheet at Anfield, having previously shipped 14 in their first five away games of the campaign. The Swans hold the record at this stage of conceding the fewest goals at home in the entire Premier League, although they have scored half as many as Manchester City have at the Etihad Stadium.
The gung-ho approach of setting out to score one more than the opposition is a dangerous strategy, so priorities tend to naturally lie in trying to avoid conceding goals first an foremost. That is something Everton, with only one clean sheet all season, will very much be continuing to try to do in the coming weeks.
Has too much been made of Everton’s lack of firepower this season? Perhaps people look at recent Everton’s line-ups, such as the one named by David Moyes at Fulham a fortnight ago, and not see anyone on there who stands out as a striker. They have sold Jermaine Beckford and neither Tim Cahill or Louis Saha have been regular starters this season. But international youngsters who have recently arrived at Goodison Park such as Apostolos Vellios and Royston Drenthe are the club’s top scorers with two Premier League goals each. Their late efforts earned the Merseysiders three points against Wigan at Goodison Park – which has remained their only league win at home – but only QPR in August have gone there and inflicted a shock result.
Only two points currently separate ninth and sixteenth place. Had Everton taken only a single point at Craven Cottage (rather than score two goals in additional time to win and take all three) they would be part of a bottom five still to break into double figures. As it stands they still find themselves four places off the bottom but looking up rather than over their shoulders. Because after today’s fixture at high-flying Newcastle United they take on two of those sides still in single figures.
In contrast, to everybody’s surprise, the Magpies are unbeaten this season. Ahead of games against both Manchester clubs and Chelsea, I half expect Newcastle to do to Everton today what both Manchester clubs and Liverpool have done already this season by beating them. That would maintain, for one more game at least, their growing belief they can repeat what Everton did back in 2005 and what Tottenham did five years later, and break into the top four.